My Disney Top 5 - Things to See in Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdomby Chris Barry, contributing writer
"Holy mackerel!" was the phrase that came out of my mouth. Only I didn't quite use the word mackerel. That was my verbal response the very first time I walked into Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom. I finally made it into Pandora this past March on a school trip I was chaperoning with 50 choral students. The leader of the trip, my good friend and fellow Walt Disney World enthusiast Ed, and I walked in and our jaws collectively hit the floor. We couldn't walk or even move at a normal pace as we tried to comprehend just what Disney had created here on the grounds of the former Camp Minnie Mickey. It was extraordinary. It was breathtaking. It had to be taken in and taken in slowly to really appreciate everything we were looking at. We didn't even speak. We just stopped in our tracks, slowly turned towards each other and exchanged this crazy look that I'll never forget. We couldn't believe what we were seeing and it was astonishing just how good it looked.
On that particular trip, we weren't able to get a Fastpass for either of Pandora's two attractions and we really didn't have the time to wait on giant lines. So, walking around and checking it all out was going to have to suffice for the time being, and as much as I was dying to get into the rides, I was pretty thrilled to just be seeing what has to be referred to as the most visually stunning land that Disney has constructed to date. I also knew that I had a full-blown Walt Disney World vacation booked for the upcoming summer, and therefore knew that I'd be back in a few months. I was resolutely determined to get into both of Pandora's attractions this past July and woke up early 60 days in advance to successfully score my FastPasses. I had everything I needed and all that was left was to just count the days until I would be back. It's been almost two months since that big summer trip and what were my feelings about Pandora upon my triumphant return? Let's take a look with my Top 5 things to see in Pandora - the World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
5 – Satu'li Canteen
With the expectations and crowds running high for Pandora, there had to be a sizable restaurant in this new corner of Animal Kingdom and the Satu'li Canteen fits the bill nicely. There's both indoor and outdoor seating and Pandora's dining establishment is chock full of Na'vi art and references to the film to be enjoyed as you savor the interesting menu.
If you visit Pandora, you should stop in to the Satu'li Canteen and have a look even if you choose not to eat. It’s worth the visit just to view the art. Photo by Donald Fink.
Considering how popular this area was expected to be, Disney could have gone with much safer options familiar to the average American traveler's palate. Thankfully, they decided to go in a different direction. Customizable dining like Chipotle and Blaze pizza is a popular trend in the ever growing "fast casual" food market. Guests at Satu'li Canteen get to choose their protein, base, and sauce from a short list at the register and then wait at the pickup counter for their delectable concoctions to come forth.
I ordered the slow-roasted sliced grilled beef on a quinoa and vegetable salad base with the charred onion chimichurri sauce, and I was extremely happy. It was accompanied by some delicious crunchy vegetable slaw and yogurt boba balls. It's quite a refreshing change from chicken nuggets and fries, and to my taste, is one of the better counter service meals available in Walt Disney World at this time. I would also recommend the steamed cheeseburger pods—steamed bao stuffed with all the yummy cheeseburger components you'd want. And if you want something more typical but still sinfully delicious order the teylu all-beef hot dog wrapped in dough from the kid's menu. Boy is that tasty! The Canteen was a big hit with everyone on our trip. Don't pass it up.
4 – Explore the Valley of Mo'ara
As I said above, my first Pandora experience consisted of no rides, no restaurant, not even the gift shop. All we did was walk around the Valley of Mo'ara soaking in all of the amazing vistas and details. It needs to be seen. Sure, make sure you get on the rides. They're excellent. But don't forget to explore the land thoroughly.
Waterfalls and a mixture of local Earth and Pandoran plants are everywhere. This is not a fantasy cartoon land feel either. These plants look real. Photo by Donald Fink.
You can't fail to be amazed by the floating islands, the waterfalls, and the incredible looking flora of all shapes and sizes that surround you as you walk through the land. Stroll down all the paths. Beat the drums. Cross the bridges. Take plenty of photographs. Although, don't expect them to even come close to doing justice to actually being there because the atmosphere and visuals that the Imagineers created throughout Pandora are simply extraordinary and demand to be experienced in person.
3 – Na'vi River Journey
We didn't have Fastpass for the Na'vi River Journey, but were determined to get on the ride. One morning, we ventured out to Animal Kingdom before opening and were there at rope drop. We had already experienced the awesomeness that is Flight of Passage, so while the majority of guests were lining up for the long wait for Pandora's signature attraction, we easily broke to the left and were rewarded by a 20-minute wait for the Na'vi River Journey.
This relaxing Na'vi River Journey takes you through a lazy river where you'll find everything from a Na'vi warrior to many of the Pandoran flora and fauna. Photo by Donald Fink.
Now, truth be told, I've heard some negative online comments about this attraction and I can't begin to fathom why. Everyone in our party thought the river journey was breathtakingly beautiful. Sure, it's a simple Disney boat ride like Pirates of the Caribbean and "it's a small world," but the fact that you're riding in a slow-moving boat is where the similarities cease. I thought the atmosphere and details created in both the queue and the attraction itself were stunning to behold.
Don't go expecting a thrilling ride, but why should you? The film is about capturing the alluring and natural beauty of this very unique world and the Na'vi River Journey succeeds in driving that message home. The waterfalls, the glowing plants, the layers of video screens depicting Pandora's wildlife are all impressive to say the least and the animatronic figure highlighted at the end is stunningly lifelike. It's a wonderful attraction and shouldn't be missed.
2 – Avatar Flight of Passage
We managed to score two sets of Fastpass reservations for Pandora's mega headliner, Avatar Flight of Passage on two separate days, and I'm so glad we did because this is an experience worth repeating. In my humble opinion, this is the most impressive attraction on Disney property right now. We were simply bursting with anticipation the first time as we walked through the incredibly detailed queue and that anticipation carried through the second time around because we now knew the wonder that lay ahead.
A mural depicting a Na'vi warrior riding a Banshee is located in the queue of The Flight of Passage. Photo by Donald Fink
Flight of Passage is simply thrilling. Disney has taken the 3-D simulator experience to new heights, pardon the pun. I have yet to feel anything that comes close to flying my banshee over the wilderness and beauty that is Pandora, feeling his lungs breathe between my legs. I can't even begin to imagine all the visuals that were before me. The screen is just bursting with creatures and details, too many to even process. It's an astonishing accomplishment, one that sticks with you for a while after deboarding your banshee.
1 – See it at night
What can be better than the incredible beauty of Pandora? Seeing it in the daylight and then coming back to experience it in the dark. I can remember back on the March trip walking out of Pandora with one of my fellow chaperones after spending an hour or so there in the morning. I was looking down at the walkway and realized that the path was seemingly covered in some sort of glow in the dark paint. The notion that we were going to be coming back that evening to see Pandora glow at night literally gave me goosebumps. It was a total Disney geek out moment only superseded by actually crossing the bridge and seeing the land at night.
Pandora at night is a whole different experience. Photo by Alan Dalinka
To me, most Disney parks truly come alive after dark. The Imagineers in charge of lighting the various lands are true artists in my eyes. They manage to take a place that's just about as magical as you can get and transform it into something completely different and even more beautiful. Pandora at night is the pinnacle of that particular art form. There's quite simply nothing else like it. If you thought it looked amazing in the daylight, make sure you return at night. It's unbelievable what they've done back there.
The wait to come back to Pandora was well worth it and the land truly paid off for me. I've never been a big supporter of Disney's decision to sink so much of their money and effort into Avatar. I knew they were going to do something special with it. I just wasn't sure that the emotional connection was there and to a certain degree, I still don't think it is. My kids have seen the film, but don't have the connection to the characters like they do in other cinematic universes like Star Wars, The Avengers, or Harry Potter. I always like to say that my mom knows who Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are but couldn't begin to tell you anything about Avatar.
I understand that for years, it was the most successful film of all time and I know there are several more to come, but are people going to fall in love with the land and have that emotional connection to it? The simple answer, at least in my case is, "Sure." It's a different connection though. My bond with Pandora is now due to the land that the Imagineers created. It's now etched into my Disney psyche much the same way that Peter Pan's Flight, Space Mountain and Expedition Everest are. Now that I've been there and experienced all the land has, I can't imagine a future Disney trip without it. I still can't tell you who Sigourney Weaver's character is or the name of the actor in the lead role and who his character is. But one thing is for sure, I will be back in Pandora - The World of Avatar as soon as I can. It's awesome and I can't wait to be there again. I will say that the one thing that Pandora has done for me is to get me completely and totally even more psyched up for Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. My guess is that the Imagineers are going to take the work and details that they sunk into Pandora and "turn it up to 11" for Star Wars. As if I wasn't already beside myself excited!
With this trip through Pandora - The World of Avatar, I've now completed a journey documenting each and every land in all of the four Walt Disney World theme parks. I started this journey with you back in March of 2017 on Main Street U.S.A! It's been an amazing journey through the magical lands and worlds created by Disney's Imagineers. I've loved your comments and lists and the discussions that have been started. Thanks so much for being the best group of readers a writer could ever hope for. I'm far from done. I have a ton of great ideas for where this column is going to go next as I continue to document everything about Walt Disney World that keeps on inspiring me and that silly, magical inner child hiding just below the surface of this, purportedly, 50-year-old grownup.
As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below, let me hear your thoughts on Pandora - The World of Avatar and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.
I also am not sold on the Disney/Pandora connection(though I do enjoy FoP quite a bit!), but the land is possibly impressive enough I would not be shocked if the reverse of what drove Harry Potter areas at Universal and Galaxy's Edge development may happen for Avatar.
That being normally that the popularity of the movies/characters drove the thirst for good attractions/lands. While I've seen the first Avatar movie, it's not as big a deal to me as it is for true fans. So let's just say that I probably won't be in any rush to see the future movies when they eventually come out, the first being roughly 10 years after the original, IIRC. I do wonder if the popularity of Pandora at WDW might actually contribute to the new movies being more popular that they might have been without Pandora existing at a theme park. With most of us here on MP obviously being WDW fans, perhaps my perception is skewed in terms of comparing the number of people who visit theme parks with some sort of regularity to those who go to movies on a very frequent basis. Perhaps any WDW impact would be just a ripple in the water, but it's obviously impossible to ever know (though I could see surveys for people who see the new movies created to try to gauge such a thing, such as "If you have visited WDW in the last year, did seeing Pandora make you enjoy this movie more?").
I can't dispute the top 5 with anything I've actually seen, but there is one thing I've not yet seen (forgot to check my times guide during last visit! ) is the person in the Pandora Utility Suit. That looks like it would be neat so see, maybe. I say maybe, depending on how much of the "walking around the land and greeting visitors" is really done vs. just a standard stagnant meet and greet location. With all the emphasis Disney placed on the suit having some heft to it (even if significantly over-estimated for storytelling), I could see the thing freely roaming around a crowded land having logistics issues, especially not stepping on people! (It's a lot bigger than most character costumes).
The other thing I've heard mentioned about Pandora that I believe is true is the sounds are also quite impressive if you stop to listen to them as you wander about. Technically that's not something to "see", so I won't say it should be on your list , but it is something to be aware of when visiting.
Interesting possibility Dave. I will say this, upon returning from our trip I made sure to re-watch Avatar. So, the possibility exists that a regular WDW visitor might be driven to the new movies - if they ever get completed!
We stopped and saw a bit of the utility suit character. We didn't see him walking around. He was pretty stationary when we saw him, but we didn't dawdle with him too long. It did look very cool and impressive, but I guess we were on the move at that particular time and didn't stick with him too long.
I was very tempted to include the sounds of this land on the list. They did a great job with the creature noises. It is a huge part of the overall atmosphere.
Excellent recap, Chris. I strongly agree with your take on the Navi River Journey. I'd heard it was too short, but it actually came out longer than I was expecting. And I didn't go in looking for hundreds of AA figures - I just enjoyed the sights and sounds for what they were. And of course that one AA figure is simply stunning!
Everyone in our group was very impressed with the visuals and sounds of the land itself. It was awesome. Everyone in our group was equally unimpressed with both attractions. The river journey had no story (it was supposed to have one, but really appeared only in the queue and at the end of ride as far as we could tell) and as someone mentioned it is quite short. Visually it was beautiful and there were some very cool special effects, but for us that is all it was, a ride with great visuals and special effects, but no real meaning. The animatronic at the end was really the saving grace as that was fantastic. Flight of Passage was in a similar vein. The queue was awesome, detailed, and told a great story. The loading process was certainly the most detailed and lengthy process, really trying to explain what was about to happen and how it was to happen.
But ultimately the ride was yet another 3-D simulator and apart from everyone saying it was the "clearest 3D" we had ever seen, it didn't do much for any of us. Perhaps waiting in the queue for almost 3 hours jaded our experience, but none of us had any desire to get back in line and ride again, even if the line was only 1 hour. We did all recognize the amazing technical work that went into the ride and certainly appreciated that very much.
Note to Disney, please don't become Universal and make all your attractions screen based.
Your Top 5 lines up with mine pretty closely in this case -- I'd just swap around a few things. The Satu'li Canteen ranks among our very favorite counter-service restaurants on property, and we'll head over there to eat even when we're not riding anything. We love the atmosphere and the very interesting food.
We've been to WDW three times since Pandora opened, including very shortly after the land first opened and wait times were insane (five hours for Flight of Passage? Not a chance). That trip, we rode Flight of Passage with a FastPass but didn't get on the Na'vi River Journey, which was experiencing downtime in addition to the staggering standby wait times.
Since then, we've ridden Flight of Passage probably four or five more times, but we've only ridden the Na'vi River Journey once (with a FastPass). We were simply underwhelmed by the boat ride. Sure, there's plenty of stuff to look at, but there was (seemingly) no attempt to tell a story with the ride, unlike many of Disney's other dark rides. Very disappointing to us that they spent all that money to build a big new attraction like that but left out narrative. I'm sure we'll ride it again during some future trip, but only when wait times drop sufficiently that it's like waiting for Pirates or something similar. It doesn't seem worth wasting a FastPass on.
So, move Na'vi River Journey to #5, put the Satu'li Canteen at #4, and then exploring the land as #3 and you'll have my top 5. The only part of the land that really disappointed us was the store. It didn't feel... I don't know... themed enough? It felt like Tatooine Traders without any of the cool merchandise -- sort of a rehash.
I very much hope there are long-term plans for the expansion of this land, especially after the next movies come out. A third attraction, a second food location (maybe a table-service restaurant), and more to explore would be really cool. It is truly one of the most immersive lands Disney has ever built, but it feels a bit too limited in scope right now; that's probably a function of the crowds more than the land itself, though. It's hard to feel like you're on another planet when you're trapped in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on the pathways.
Irony or is it hypocrisy? I think it is absolutely hilarious that Disney put an Avatar Land in one of their parks. What is the main theme of the movie? How evil American consumerism is and how much we are destroying the planet. And yet, the biggest promoter of American consumerism, The Disney Company, went ahead and plopped a screed against that right down in one of their parks. Pretty freaking funny. No plastic straws though?? Ha, ha, ha!
As far as the rides go, the Flight of Passage made me ill. I didn't expect that but it happened and I am one and done with that. The Navi River Journey however was very well done. Really enjoyed that and we are grateful that it is the less popular of the two. We enjoyed walking around a couple times, enjoying the irony and chuckling about what horrible Americans we are. Onward and upward. Looking forward to the new areas taking pressure off the things we like to do.
Thanks for all your Top 5's Chris. Enjoyed reading them and creating my own in response.
The entire park (Disney's Animal Kingdom) is about conservation, and plastic straws and lids have never been allowed to protect the health of the animals there. Hilarious!
Yea, keeping beautiful animals locked up in cages is all about conservation. Hilarious!!!!